The question of Britain’s religion is one which is rarely asked, but which causes a fuss every time it is. Our own humble site was recently the host of a replay of the 2015 controversy ignited by David Cameron when he said that the UK was ‘a Christian nation.’
At the time, critics pointed out that the country was one of the principle actors behind the Reformation, the rejection of such much Christian paraphernalia that it arguably paved the way for all-out atheism. Although there is something about the British character, you could call it ‘the stiff upper lip,’ which makes us naturally reticent about such debates. However religious Cameron claimed we are, it is very difficult to measure.
This is why I thought it was foolish of Callum Dann, in his reply to Cameron McIntosh, to cite an opinion poll, even if it was to point out the decline of his own side. Such surveys are tepid registers of public opinion even with an easy subject, but with one as complex as faith many responds are bound to lie, either because they feel ashamed, or because they want to feel good about themselves. Go to any town early on a Sunday – the place may be half empty, but more people will be in bed than listening to a sermon. Besides, there are not enough churches in the land to fill the 50% or so of those polled who insist they are Christian.
The rapid atheisation of western Europe is certainly a startling phenomenon, but it is nothing new. Scholars of Christianity, such as Diarmaid Macculloch, place the beginning of the trend around one hundred years ago, after the end of the First World War, in which all the great ‘Christian’ nations of the world – Britain, Russia, Germany and France amongst them – turned on one another and pointlessly slaughtered their young in the name of various monarchs and also, let’s not forget, in the name of God.
Dann continues his argument with a quote from Peter Hitchens, a man whose conservatism is so pig-headed it frequently drives him mad. Hitchens has a genuine desire to turn the clock back on society, which is more than can be said of most Tories. But there is no turning back the clock on a loss of faith – when heresy creeps in, it stays there, only growing larger as time moves inexorably forward.
The Christian concept of a compulsory day of rest, which Hitchens mentioned and Dann quotes, isn’t such a bad one, I will admit. A day without all the crass and superficial excesses of modern life, such as phones and social media, which have been known to damage both physical and mental health, would probably be beneficial for society. It’s the best thing to come out of the Bible, I’d say, since Jesus turned water into wine.
But you don’t have to be a person of faith to switch off your phone for an afternoon and spend some time with your loved ones. This is true of all the central beliefs to which Christians adhere. The Golden Rule, found in the Gospel of Matthew, can also be found in several other religious texts, which strongly suggests that religion gets its morality for humans, and not the other way about. A moral life can be lived without ever stepping inside a church. Better in many ways, as we are not compelled to follow the often mad actions religions require of us, such as slicing off the foreskin of our male descendants and ‘taking no thought for the morrow.’
Just as an atheist such as myself is happy to admit an admiration of the concept of the Sabbath, I can also recognise that churches and cathedrals are invariably the most beautiful buildings in any community – you only need to read Philip Larkin’s lovely poem ‘Church Going’ to understand this. Nor would any self-respecting atheist ever dream of damaging religious art, burning religious texts, or hunting down those who disagree with them, as Christians did for centuries.
Incidentally, Dann’s argument that religion has brought democracy and science to our country is absurd. Off hand, I can think of the example of Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, who was chased out of England in the 1790s because a religious rabble believed his views were heretical. More recently, British-based Islamic fundamentalists – a different religion, yes, but the same way of thinking – have sought to implement Sharia in the UK, a move which would instantly end the credibility of our whole legal system. In an example of what the late Christopher Hitchens called 'reverse ecumenicism,' this dire policy was enthusiastically supported by the former head of the Church of England, Doctor Rowan Williams. It is a fact that for those who put faith before everything else, democracy and pluralism are the first to be sacrificed.
That there is a Muslim community in Britain large enough to have its own leaders makes it even more imperative that the privilege of any one faith must be removed. As Cameron McIntosh very eloquently pointed out, the Queen is the head of state as well as the head of the Church of England, while Anglican Bishops have spaces reserved for them in the House of Lords. Far from needing to be resorted, as Dann argues, Christianity in Britain is still very much in place. If seats in the Lords were reserved for white men, there would be an understandable outrage. But call them Christian and nobody, as they say, bats an eye. Only with a secular state where no faith is given any special favour can we truly call ourselves a democracy.
I admit to becoming confused as to what Dann is arguing for in his final paragraphs. He seems to hint at separation of church and state, which is promising. He also claims that many Brits appear 'happy to take all the joys and fruits from Christianity but not pay the dues,' only to say in the next paragraph that ‘Christianity does not mean forcing everyone to go to church or making people recite chapter and verse from the King James Bible.'
Whatever Dann’s beliefs are, he and other people of religion will always have right to hold them, and to encourage others to believe the same. But they must do so independently, without any state-sponsored privilege. Only then can the people of Britain decide fairly whether or not they want to keep the faith.